Confident Idiots - Misconstruing Result as a Cause

tl;dr The more you think you know, the less likely you are to recognize what you don’t know, and compensate for gaps with stories that you tell yourself.

Something that often happens in engineering is discussing a solution before discussing a problem. Even when asking, “What is the problem?", it’s not uncommon to see one present a solution rather than the problem.

I found an interesting parallel in an article titled Confident Idiots, which details our ability to, in the face of incompetence or ignorance, convince ourselves that we know things that are either partially or completely false.

One of the best examples of this are Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News segments, where random interviewees off of the street are asked questions structured to appear plausible, but in reality are totally impossible. For example, music festival goers are asked their opinions on fake bands and albus, or cinema goers who are caught leaving Godzilla are asked about the movie’s insensitivity towards the “actualy giant lizard attack on Tokyo”.

Even better is when the participants are highly educated people asked questions in their own field of study.

Here is the parallel that caught my attention:

Any conventional biology or natural science education will attempt to curb this propensity for purpose-driven reasoning. But it never really leaves us. Adults with little formal education show a similar bias. And, when rushed, even professional scientists start making purpose-driven mistakes. The Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen and some colleagues demonstrated this in a study that involved asking 80 scientists—people with university jobs in geoscience, chemistry, and physics—to evaluate 100 different statements about “why things happen” in the natural world as true or false. Sprinkled among the explanations were false purpose-driven ones, such as “Moss forms around rocks in order to stop soil erosion” and “The Earth has an ozone layer in order to protect it from UV light.” Study participants were allowed either to work through the task at their own speed, or given only 3.2 seconds to respond to each item. Rushing the scientists caused them to double their endorsements of false purpose-driven explanations, from 15 to 29 percent.

There exists a parallel for misconstruing solutions with problems: misconstruing results with causes. Moss does not form on rocks to prevent erosion; preventing erosion is a side-effect of moss growing on rocks.

That said, the last paragraph wraps up the article’s point nicely:

“The built-in features of our brains, and the life experiences we accumulate, do in fact fill our heads with immense knowledge; what they do not confer is insight into the dimensions of our ignorance. As such, wisdom may not involve facts and formulas so much as the ability to recognize when a limit has been reached. Stumbling through all our cognitive clutter just to recognize a true “I don’t know” may not constitute failure as much as it does an enviable success, a crucial signpost that shows us we are traveling in the right direction toward the truth.”


‘Thomas Jefferson, lamenting the quality of political journalism in his day, once observed that a person who avoided newspapers would be better informed than a daily reader, in that someone “who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” Benjamin Franklin wrote that “a learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.” .. Another quote sometimes attributed to Franklin has it that “the doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.”’